Different Eyes

“I don’t understand how you live in different places,” a close friend once said to me. “I just feel so much better knowing how things work.”

I can absolutely understand this. Sometimes, it really is tiring to attempt something utterly banal and find yourself needing to learn a new way of doing it. For example, ATM cards in Singapore only work in bank-specific ATMs and those of their partner banks. And I don’t mean being charged a fee – I mean the card actually being accepted by the machine. Just a few months ago, a quick trip to the grocery store for flour turned into a research project about which German flour is closest to North American all-purpose flour. So I completely understand my friend’s comment. Figuring out the intricacies of living in different societies, all the small things that we take for granted until forced to think about them, can certainly be inconvenient.

However, it can also be a phenomenal opportunity to learn that there are multiple ways of doing things; that there is not necessarily right or wrong, but often just different; that people of the world have so much to share with one another.

Life in Malaysia got easier when I let go of expectations for processes and procedures. The thing would happen, just on a different timeline and with more paperwork than I was used to. There would probably be setbacks and changes. No one else was agitated or anxious, so there was no reason I should be. Just because I wanted something and had a picture it my head of what that might look like did not mean it should, would, or needed to turn out that way. Things happened and society functioned. (Full disclosure: Steep learning curve and many tears, but I am far more relaxed about procedures and waiting times than I used to be.)

It’s not only a matter of bureaucracy, though. Being in a new place requires letting go of certain deeply ingrained values, or at least a willingness to look at them carefully. The issue of media censorship in Singapore was particularly interesting to me, as someone raised in American schools in which freedom of speech is touted as the value above all values. Just because I had always understood this issue one way did not mean I should only understand it one way. Just because one society functioned based on a certain set of norms did not mean the other should, or needed to, adhere to the same norms. My understanding of the word “free” has become far more nuanced, and I have a different appreciation for the types of roles that governments take.

More recently, a comment to a friend that came as naturally to me as breathing has given me pause. I listened for a few moments and responded, “Sounds like a productive day,” something I’ve said without thinking in response to many descriptions of many days. And then came the reply: “It was a nice day. A good day. It didn’t have to be productive.” Oh. Right. (I knew I moved to Europe for a reason.) We went on to talk about productivity as an American preoccupation, one used to judge how worthwhile our lives are. A few years ago, I wrote about the problems that lie in looking to be, and claiming to be, constantly busy. I argued then that we can choose differently. In my own life I often do, but there’s clearly a deeply rooted cultural understanding or expectation of which I was unaware.

It is interesting to have this pointed out, and confronting in that it requires me to look into myself and at how I am made. We are all shaped by our experiences, and I find these compelling to dissect. This does not mean discarding all of the “old” in favour of the “new”, but rather understanding the influences I want to maintain in my current worldview and those that might benefit from revision.

As I see it, cultivating open-minded curiosity about the world around us is how we grow. This is what I have learned in my journey through the world, and this is what I hope to continually learn as the journey moves forward.

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

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